“Its About More Than Statues”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 15, 2017
Exodus 32:1-14 & Philippians 4:1-9
The most recognized symbol in all the world is, without a doubt, the cross. It hangs in our sanctuaries, it stands proudly on our church buildings, it adorns our clothing, it hangs around our necks. It is a simple thing—two pieces of wood, one piece slightly longer than the other—but it is packed with meaning. The cross is the central image for Christians. It is our central image because we believe that the Savior of the world gave up his life for ours on a cross. We believe that this common instrument of torture and death was transformed into an instrument of salvation when Jesus was nailed to it. A story is told that when the emperor Constantine was marching into battle, a cross appeared before his army and he was immediately converted; Constantine then made the open practice of Christianity legal. Such is the power of just seeing the cross. The cross is a sign of power, of love and redemption, of a world transformed when things had gone totally out of whack.
But I’ve heard it said before—and I don’t remember who said it—that the cross is a strange choice, stylistically speaking, for clothing and tattoos and decorations. It is a strange choice because at its very base level, at its most elemental point, the cross is a tool of capital punishment. It is ugly; it is painful; it is a sign of how much pain humans can inflict on one another. We don’t wear electric chair charms as necklaces or bracelets, do we? We don’t embroider jeans with or get tattoos of lethal injection needles, right? We certainly don’t use nooses as decorations. So why the cross? Well, because its about more than two pieces of wood. Starting with the death of Jesus, the cross became more than a cross. Before Jesus, crosses stood empty outside of Roman cities as a warning to travelers of the power of the empire. So excruciating was death on a cross that no one dared cross the government for fear of having to die that way. But after Jesus died on one, the cross became a symbol of eternal love and grace. You and me, his followers, made it more than a cross, more than two pieces of wood.
The same can be said of the golden calf; the people made it more than a statue of gold. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites waited patiently for Moses to return. Moses had done this a few times, so they were used to it: up and down the mountain, each time bringing back a piece of God’s law. This time, though, Moses was gone longer than they expected. A month passed. Then ten days more. The people have heard nothing from Moses, the outsider who claimed to do the work of God. Perhaps Moses was dead. “This Moses,’ the people to Aaron in tones of distance and disowning, ‘we don’t know what has become of him.” In other words, good ole’ whats-his-name has dragged us through the dessert and into the mountains and we’d rather be back in Egypt…do something about it.
Strangely, Aaron, the consecrated high priest of Israel, does do something about it. It is strange because he should have known better. In fact, he did know better. But when he saw that the people were losing hope, losing heart, losing their minds, he asks them for their jewelry. When they had handed everything over to Aaron, he took the gold and formed it in a mold and cast an image of a calf. The people then cried out, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron, as the high priest, did what any priest would do: he built an altar in front of the calf and declared the next day a holiday. There was tremendous feasting and dancing and singing the next day, and the people made sacrifices to the calf for their health and well-being.
God is enraged. God is not pleased with the calf; God does not accept the sacrifices for the well-being of the people. God is literally red in the face, blowing steam out his nostrils, like a bull ready to charge. God is ready to wipe the slate clean again, just like God did in the flood, and start over with the only righteous man there is: Moses. But Moses pleads with the Lord. “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people…Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It is with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?” Moses plays on God’s jealousies a bit: if you destroy the people, what will the Egyptians think of you? Luckily, the Lord’s mind is changed and the Lord does not bring any disaster on the people.
There is a lot to take in here. People losing hope, poor leadership, false gods, golden idols, debauchery and sin. Traditionally, us Jesus people have read this story with a slight air of self-righteousness. We know that it is against God’s law to build idols. We look back on the Israelites and have pity that they could go so wrong so quickly, and marvel at how God’s mind could be changed by Moses’ humble plea. At times, even, we may look at this speed bump in the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land and laugh, laugh at how primitively it is to build a statue and then worship it .
But we have to remember that its about more than statues. Way more. This timeless story resonates and reverberates down through the ages because God’s people are really good at putting their faith and trust in the wrong things. And they are really good at putting their misplaced faith and trust into idols of all kinds—statues, memorials, ideologies, doctrines, and even theologies. It's about more than statues. The Israelites were wrong; that is the message of this story. They were wrong to imagine that Moses had abandoned them. They were wrong in thinking that God had brought them out of Egypt just to let them die in the wilderness. They were wrong to think that a statue would fill the void in their hearts. And they were wrong to bow to it and worship it as if it had anything to do with their liberation and freedom. The statue was just a statue until the Israelites attached their liberation and freedom to it. The golden calf was just a golden calf until the Israelites proclaimed that it was their savior. It was just an object, without life or breath or thought or feelings, but it became so much more when the Israelites worshipped it. In all, the Israelites put their faith and trust in the golden calf, and instead of bringing them into closer contact with God, it actually took them farther away from One who had set them free.
There is another reason this story resonates and reverberates right now, and that is because we are in the midst of a heated debate in this country about the power and place of statutes and memorials. Are they just statues. Is there more to it than marble and bronze and clay? The golden calf incident tells the truth that statues are way more than statutes; they are infused with meaning and significance, both good and bad. The golden calf incident shows that humans fashion idols when they are scared or feel abandoned or think their majority is in danger. The golden calf incident shows us that though we may have good intentions—after all, the Israelites thought the golden calf would bring them closer to God—there are times when we get it wrong and our actions take us farther away from God. The golden calf incident shows us how flimsy our devotion is to anything and how quickly we can turn when something fails to meet our standards or desires. Worshipping the golden calf is not a historical event ensconced in the pages of the Bible; it is still happening today.
What we didn’t hear in our reading today is what happens when Moses comes down from the mountain. Coming down from the mountain with the first two tablets of the law in hand, Moses sees the golden calf and the people worshipping it. Needless to say, his reaction is not good. With the same burning face as God had when the whole mess got started, Moses takes the tablets, lifts them up in front of the people, and smashes them on the ground. Then, he takes the golden calf, burns it with fire, grinds it to dust, scatters it on the Israelites’ water supply, and makes them drink it. Some commentators believe Moses made the Israelites’ drink the ground up golden calf because ordinarily gold can be reused over and over, but to reuse the golden calf again the Israelites would have had to scavenge through cemetery and latrine to find the gold. It is interesting to note that the story of the golden calf is still in our collective memory even though the statue is not; Moses knew that destroying the statue would not erase its history.
On one hand, Exodus gives us command and permission to smash and grind into dust anything that we have built that God didn’t ask us to build in the first place. That includes all statues, monuments, church buildings, bronzes, or any object or thing, other than God, we have given our time and attention to. On the other hand, it is much more complicated than that. These things have meaning attached to them, meaning that is good to some and not good to others. To smash and burn is disastrous and dangerous; however, the story of the Israelites warns of just how dangerous idols can be and are. Is there a third way? Is there a way to dismantle the idols we have created without burning our society to the ground? Can we strip our modern idols of their power over us and give that power back to God where it belongs?
The Apostle Paul thinks so, and it begins in the heart and in the mind. Nothing has true power over us unless we let it, whether that is God, the government, or an object of any kind. That is why Paul urges the Philippians to fill their hearts and minds with things that are good, with things that are of God. He urges them to stop worrying about things they cannot control. He pushes them to submit everything to God in the form of grateful prayer. He points them to everything that is just, everything that is pure, everything that is true and honorable and pleasing and commendable. Paul guides them into doing all the things he taught them. The result is that the God of peace will be with them, and there will be no room for those things that distract, disappoint, or destroy. If your heart and mind is squarely focused on God, and on the things of God and nothing else, there is no room for idols to inch in. If the idols can’t inch their way in, they have no power and they cannot take us away from the Lord. When you sever your ties with the idols you have constructed, you strengthen the bond between you and God in a way that nothing can destroy.
So let’s be committed to that today, especially as we struggle with the issues of our day and age. Let’s not get wrapped up in partisanship, or name-calling; let’s not label or oppress or dismiss. Let’s fill ourselves with the things of God. Let’s fill our hearts with a deep love for one another and for the creation. Let’s fill our hearts with compassion for those who are in need and for those who have been lost or forsaken. Let’s fill our minds with the knowledge and wisdom of God. Let’s fill our minds with thoughts of peace and justice and mercy. Let’s open our arms to the unlovable and ostracized, to the outcast and the sinner. Let’s open our lives to one another and the presence of God that is in and through all things. If we commit to this way of life—if we put our trust and faith in God and in God alone, and if we fill ourselves with the things of God—the way forward will be clear. If that means tearing down, so be it. If that means preserving the things that already are, so be it. Wherever the Lord may lead us, the Lord will be with us, and the Lord will show us the way.
God alone is immovable, unchanging, eternal, ageless—Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. In this is our hope and our life. Let’s boldly face our days with this hope and life. The God of peace is with us. Amen.